Is Singapore ready for a female prime minister?

OCTOBER 25 — A few months ago, Singaporeans watched as the rather surprising results of general election 2015 were announced.  The final tallies may have defied the pundits’ expectations but one thing was emphatically not a surprise — far fewer women than men were elected to Parliament.

Women won 18 of 84 contested seats and together with five nominated (un-elected MPs), the sex holds just over 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament. The proportion has been more or less flat for over a decade.

Of course this is a global phenomenon. Women represent 50 per cent of the population in most countries but only a handful of parliaments reflect anything near the real demographic balance; Sweden and Finland are strong performers… as is Rwanda.

However, it can’t be denied that female representation in Singapore’s Parliament has increased significantly from effectively 0 per cent in the 70s and 80s to over 20 per cent today but the truth is that in positions of true power — ministries and positions at the top of the administrative and economic hierarchy — women are sorely under-represented.

Tourists visit Singapore’s famous Merlion (centre) in front of the skyline of the city’s financial business district. — Picture by AFP
Tourists visit Singapore’s famous Merlion (centre) in front of the skyline of the city’s financial business district. — Picture by AFP

While the media recently celebrated the fact that Grace Fu was sworn in as the second woman in history to hold a full Cabinet position,mI find her appointment only begs the question: Why is 50 per cent of the population after over 50 years of independence capable of producing just two ministers?

I’m genuinely happy that women like Ms Fu, and speaker Halima Yacob have stepped out on to the highest stage but they still remain rare exceptions to the male-dominated rule.

Given that Singapore is, officially at least, committed to the concepts of equality and meritocracy the situation is hard to understand or justify.

In every sphere, local women have proved their equality and merit.  At every quantifiable level of performance primary, secondary, tertiary exam results and professional qualifications women perform equally or better than men but they still occupy only a fraction of the most prominent and powerful positions in our society.

In fact Singapore till recently imposed quotas to restrict women when they threatened to overtake and out compete men. Until 2002 there was a cap on female admissions to medical school as female academic excellence was seeing women win more and more positions in medical school.

Administrators misguidedly feared too many female doctors would weaken the health service as female doctors would take time off to rear children.

While this cap was annulled, this sort of thinking is in direct line with the attitudes of the first generation of the country’s leadership.

These two quotes from senior first generation leaders offer a clear insight into the state’s initial views on women:

“We shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time be mothers,” Lee Kuan Yew.  (former prime minister)

“Asian society has always held the man responsible for the child he fathered. He is the primary provider, not his wife,” Goh Chok Tong (former prime minister)

This patriarchy was packaged as a defence of Asian values, a concept that’s always struck me as rather vague and convenient (Asia is a rather large and diverse place).

However, state thinking has clearly evolved with the ruling party now fielding more women candidates and employing internal quotas for women’s representation.  Statements from our current leadership have been quite encouraging on the matter of women’s political and economic  participation but we still haven’t seen any meaningful progress in terms of encouraging women to hold power on an equal basis with men.

On the economic front, women still earn less than men for doing the same jobs and at the highest levels thing get worse rather than better.  Females account for just eight per cent of directors on SGX-listed companies. That’s behind most of our Asian peers — Hong Kong, Malaysia etc. and far below the levels seen in most developed Western economies — the EU averages 17 and Norway is up to 40.

Therefore that at this stage in our development we are still celebrating the emergence of a single female Cabinet minister or Speaker seems wrong.

Although I understand that women’s representation is a global problem, Singapore as a progressive, prosperous and compact city state should be at the forefront of empowerment not content to languish in the middle and bottom tiers. We have lower female political representation than Afghanistan and fewer female Cabinet ministers than notoriously patriarchal Japan. And Indonesia manages better board representation.

It has reached a point where this should be a matter of national shame, honestly I think it’s time for serious change. Ideally, starting at the top.

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